Elk Fork Lake's Largemouth Bass

Elk Fork Lake's Largemouth Bass

This 278-acre Jackson County water continues to produce lunker bass each season for savvy anglers. Summertime's the right time to fish Elk Fork. (July 2006)

As we pulled up to the lake, Jay asked, "That's it?" I confirmed his question with a quick "yep" as we readied our tackle for a day of bass fishing on Elk Fork Lake. "Doesn't look like much," Jay muttered in a skeptical tone. Nonchalantly, I said, "We'll see."

I knew that Elk Fork was loaded with bass, and that the lake appeared to be right in the middle of its post-impoundment "heyday," but I wasn't about to spoil the fun with my partner.

After catching and releasing 20 or so bass, I asked Jay, "How would you rate the fishing on this little lake now?" Knowing he had been bested, Jay sarcastically grumbled, "Fair to average."

ELK FORK LAKE STATISTICS

Nearly 300 acres of prime bass water emerged when Elk Fork Creek, a small but very productive tributary of Mill Creek, was impounded in 1997. Elk Fork Lake is virtually brand new. Anglers continue to benefit from the initial burst of fish production that naturally follows the creation of a new impoundment.

At 278 acres, this Jackson County impoundment may be smaller than most lakes that serious bass anglers fish, but don't make the mistake of overlooking this water. The lake's small size is a bit deceiving because just about every bit of Elk Fork Lake is capable of holding bass.

As for its physical makeup, the average depth of Elk Fork runs about 8 feet, and the lake's colored water makes an ideal place for largemouth bass to thrive. The depth, cover and water clarity combine to create plenty of high-quality fishing locations that hold fish throughout the lake.

THE FISHERY

Elk Fork primarily contains largemouth bass, and they are stacked in the lake from one end to the other. Biologist Scott Morrison said, "Elk Fork Lake has more bass per acre than any other West Virginia small impoundment."

Anglers will find a few spotted bass in the lake, but it's the largemouths in Elk Fork that really drive this fishery. "Research conducted by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) has shown that Elk Fork contains the most bass of any small impoundment, but not as many trophy bass as some of the state's other small impoundments," Morrison said.

Certainly, it would be tough for it to compete with O'Brien or Woodrum (before that lake's dewatering), or even Upper Mud Lake for trophy potential; but as bass in the lake age, Elk Fork may one day rank among the Mountain State's elite trophy bass waters.

Morrison does report sampling bass from Elk Fork up to 21 inches long, probably in the 5- to 6-pound range; and he has viewed pictures of 8- pound bass that anglers claim to have caught from the lake. Whether you're looking for numbers or size, there remains little doubt that Elk Fork has become one of West Virginia's premier bass-fishing destinations.

Elk Fork's bass have been protected by a catch-and-release regulation since the lake was impounded in the late 1990s. The regulation has served to produce more big bass by restricting harvest as these fish work their way toward trophy status. Since Elk Fork is still reaping the benefits of the nutrient surge that accompanies newly impounded waters, it's not surprising that the lake offers bass anglers both numbers and size.

Quantities of bass appear to be the lake's best attribute right now, but just how many bass can an angler expect to catch at this hotspot? It's not uncommon for anglers fishing Elk Fork to catch 20 or so bass in an outing, most of which will run from 1 to 3 pounds. However, as the bass population ages, many of Elk Fork's largemouth bass will be in the 5-pound range soon enough.

Biologist Morrison reports that recent electrofishing samples on Elk Fork revealed a healthy mix of largemouth bass as well as ample forage to keep them healthy. So far, shad have not been included in the lake's fishery, and a solid portion of the forage base remains composed of small bluegills and sunfish. The lake also contains several minnow and shiner species, as well as other small forage fish.

If you come to fish Elk Fork Lake, expect to encounter fishing pressure. "Usually, Elk Fork's parking area runs at least half full during the spring and early summer. As you might expect, the heaviest fishing pressure occurs on the weekends," Morrison said.

Over 300 bass were tagged on Elk Fork during a 2003 tagging study, which was designed to assess fishing pressure on several of West Virginia's small impoundments. The results of that study revealed considerable angling pressure on most of the state's small impoundments, although anglers catching bass on Elk Fork shouldn't significantly affect the fishery because of the catch-and-release regulation.

The lake's high fishing pressure shouldn't surprise anyone, since Elk Fork happens to be located between the major population centers of Charleston and Parkersburg. Any decent bass lake resting between such urban areas would be expected to attract big crowds.

WHERE ARE THE BASS?

It's no accident that Elk Fork Lake features plenty of woody habitat. Most of the timber in the lake basin was purposely left standing, and thus creates some marvelous habitat for bass and other fish species. Submerged woody debris has been proven to be one of the preferred habitat types for bass.

The best stands of timber can be found along the old Elk Fork Creek channel, and it's certainly no surprise that this area is one of the lake's most popular bass-fishing locations. Not only can anglers fish among the treetops in this area, but they also get to fish the deep creek channel that is normally a superb spot for summertime bass. Morrison rates the timber area and the creek channel as two of the best locations to probe for bass on Elk Fork Lake.

In addition to patches of standing and submerged timber, Elk Fork has some of the state's best aquatic vegetative habitat; there's no doubt that Elk Fork's vegetation is one of the reasons that this lake has become such a dynamite bass fishery.

Elk Fork Lake serves as one of only a handful of destinations in the state where anglers can go to purposefully fish aquatic vegetation. Annual drawdowns, harsh climates, tough growing conditions and predation from animals prevent vegetation from prospering in most West Virginia reservoirs and small impoundments.

Like most impoundments, Elk Fork's aquatic vegetation is primarily concentrated along its shoreline. However, since this lake is relatively shallow in many areas, it is not uncommon to find patches of aquatic vegetation thro

ughout the lake.

Vegetation is such an important component in impoundments. Besides simply providing cover for bass, aquatic vegetation functions as a spawning refuge, creates shelter for forage species and basically gives a production boost to the entire food chain.

GETTING THERE

To access Elk Fork Lake from Interstate 77, take exit 138 at Ripley and head west on U.S. Route 33. Turn onto county Route (CR) 26 and follow this road to the lake. The access ramp to Elk Fork is located about three-quarters of a mile from the dam along CR 26. The lake's access features a concrete ramp with courtesy piers and plenty of parking.

Anglers are reminded that this 278-acre lake is governed by a 10-horsepower motor limit. Boats may have larger motors, but firing them up on the lake is prohibited. Night-fishing continues to be allowed on Elk Fork Lake.

What does the future hold for Elk Fork Lake? Can this small impoundment continue to produce tons of bass as it blossoms into a trophy bass fishery? Biologist Morrison doesn't foresee any immediate threats to the fishery, but he does feel that this lake will experience a small decline in bass density as its population stabilizes. Most small impoundments undergo such a subtle decrease in bass numbers five to 10 years after the lake is impounded.

With a small decline in bass numbers and an aging bass population, look for more lunker bass to turn up in Elk Fork. As long as the forage base continues to support the lake's bass population and the no-harvest regulation protects bass as they age, this lake should keep on producing terrific bass-angling opportunities.

It's tough to determine whether the lake will ever develop into a trophy bass fishery or just continue churning out high catch rates, but either way it appears Elk Fork will continue to offer quality bass fishing to Mountain State anglers for many years to come.

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